Interview: Michael Tippett on the genesis of The Mask of Time

A fascinating insight into Tippett's creative process from the Gramophone archive. Interview by Ivor Humphreys

The first recording of The Mask of Time – copies are now very hard to find
The first recording of The Mask of Time – copies are now very hard to find

When writing about The Mask of Time as a 'work in progress' in 1981, Sir Michael Tippett explained that like many composers towards the end of their lives he had felt impelled to contribute to the tradition, as he put it, of giving expression to the transcendental in some aspect or other, to 'confront and consider fundamental matters bearing upon man, his relationship with time, his place in the world as we know it and in the universe at large'. The gestation period for the work - which is in two parts, each of some 45 minutes duration -had been a long one, going back seven or eight years, during which he had accumulated, sifted through and absorbed an enormous amount of material of all kinds. Tippett has said that it became evident during this period that he could not emulate Haydn and write another Creation, nor envisage a new treatment of the Catholic Mass, nor reach for some romantic alternative such as Delius's Nietzsche setting, A Mass of Life or Mahler's Eighth Symphony with its juxtaposition of the Latin hymn, Veni, creator spiritus and the last scene of Goethe's Faust. These examples provided him only with negatives, as it were, against which he could develop and find his own way. The Mask of Time evades metaphysical questions and as Tippett 'could not come down on the side of one God or another' he had to accommodate 'a plurality of coexisting viewpoints. At best my composition offers fragments or scenes from a possible 'epiphany for today.' 

As a creative artist, Tippett's predominant working tool is metaphor, and in The Mask of Time he draws a rich amalgam from a variety of writers who are important to him, including WB Yeats, Shelley, Anna Akhmatova, the American mystic Annie Dillard, Mary Renault, TS Eliot and Rilke, as well as scientists Loren Eiseley and Jacob Bronowski (whose The Ascent of Man had a significant influence in the shaping of the work). Each of The Mask's two parts comprises five scenes, with those in Part 1 more obviously mythological in character and moving from the 'creation' of the cosmos to the emergence of civilization and an earthly paradise, and those in Part 2 more concerned with the individual in history. The work encompasses a veritable panorama of experience but it focuses on a number of specific themes: the metaphor of the universe expanding in time and space as we get to know ever more of it; the notion of the fixed and unchanging in nature; the concept of reversal, with various overtones from science to psychology; the plight and status of the individual relative to both the fixed and the ever-changing elements of his environment; our need for a basis of affirmation; the polarity between knowledge obtained through reason and that derived from 'deep inner sensibilities'. The Mask is indeed a truly 'collective' work. 


Clearly even to think of undertaking a work on this scale is daunting and it seemed an inevitable question to ask how it all began to take shape in the composer's mind. 'Well, it came in an odd way. It was just after the end of the last opera, The Ice Break. Someone asked me if I was going to write another opera and I said no because I knew then that I wanted to write a considerable piece for voices and orchestra for the concert hall. What it was I didn't know at all at that stage. So I merely said that at my age I thought it was quite impossible to think of writing another opera. All I meant by that was that I didn't think it was likely that I'd be able to write a fifth opera; the fact that I'm doing so now is accidental. But at what point it began to take shape I can't answer you, I don't know. You read things, you see things, you listen and bit by bit something begins and holds and gradually it happens. You often forget what the origin of these things was. 

'I couldn't express myself through any single liturgical or even philosophical tradition, because the work was to come out of our own time and it seemed to me that we are in some way, to use the jargon word, pluralistic. And also some of the metaphors that come in older, especially received, religion have vanished. Haydn, when he came to the same point and wroteThe Creation, could still take an account of the creation which he believed was literally the word of God. That gave him obvious things: archangels who sing, characters with names and so on - all that's within the oratorio tradition, extended out of the Passions and the Mass. Well that's no longer there for me. It's not so much the Darwinian changes we know of, it's the actual things that we can see: the strange white swifts and bats in the caves of Papua, New Guinea, for example, the first spring cuckoo – a sound that's been there for a million years or more; the resonance in me is very clear. And then space: the wonderful pictures from cameras going through the big rings around Saturn - that would have been inconceivable in Haydn's day. The metaphor is changing so what does it mean to the individual human being?

'Loren Eiseley talks of the cold indifference of the watching stars - well, of course, that's a mixed metaphor because if they're watching they can't be indifferent. But the thing is that you're looking at a world which seems somehow colder. I don't think any of us easily still thinks, fundamentally, that it contains a paradise. Perhaps you shouldn't worry about it but you have to try to come to terms with it. You do seem, as a composer, to come at a certain time in your life to a point where this becomes part of what you want to express, as I think Beethoven did in the big Mass. The word transcendental came as a result of the need to have some description of it which would help people find their way. I simply said that in the end it is about the transcendental because that's what it is; you have to accept it. And I tried in the introduction to the work to describe what I thought it was. You see it starts off with the negatives - it's not this, it's not that - and I went so far as to say I think it offers fragments of a possible epiphany. Now when you came to the positive things, you see, it was much more difficult because you're not trying to be yourself. You're not a fundamentalist, you're not a priest and your not really a philosopher; you're expressing a message, or whatever it may be, and part of it is unknown. 

'The musical thing that was behind it, and which I hadn't known when I wrote A Child of our Time, was the Monteverdi Vespers. Monteverdi uses all sorts of musical techniques, new and old, and this huge work fascinated me - all singing, you see, and sound. You go through an accumulatory process, therefore, and gradually it straightens itself out. The opening was a long time coming because I couldn't see how it would begin: there isn't a "beginning" so how do you begin?' With 'sound'? 'Well that was the first thing, that's right. Sound, you see, because that is a statement of the metaphor. As soon as I say "where no airs blow" I've given it a metaphor because there can't be sound where no airs blow. But that's one of the oldest traditions: the music of the spheres which technically you couldn't hear. The other thing was from the Yeats poem High Talk which is really a huge metaphor: the whiffier, a man who walked on stilts before the procession. And suddenly you see what you're playing with in metaphor, both musically and otherwise, because the chorus singing "sound" and "song" and "resounding" is simply everybody looking out from the past, whereas if you polarize that against a single figure standing out in front of the choir and orchestra singing direct to you, he's singing now, as himself. Once the scenario for the whole work was there, and most of the text, it took me about three years to complete it.' 

But do the actual musical sounds come at the same time as the words? 'Not in a way I could write them down on paper, no. But the fact that I knew that almost the core of the work would be a high woman's voice singing above a male-voice choir that's already a kind of sound, but it's not an absolute sound; that comes later.' It's a kind of texture, then. 'Yes, absolutely. And there were others in the piece, obviously, that you knew. Once I'd decided what the first part of it was going to be - and that was a huge decision - I then began to consider what the metaphor of vast space and time, going back to a possible beginning, would be. And then again you had to think if it's a "big bang" or something else. Already there was something very strong in me after Haydn: "Achieved is the glorious work" - well that's a great C major chorus. All right, something is there, a sort of C majorish thing is around, as it were. 

'But once you know it's got to be done within a space of 45 minutes – and you've got a long way to go – you have to think how many movements it will have and where they're getting to. And it had to come out, it seemed to me, in the Garden of Eden because that's another absolutely crucial thing for human beings. 

'But what happened in the Garden? I had to do a lot of reading about the genesis and about tradition. Milton's view was very clear: that it was nonsense that they should have been told that they mustn't take what they like: why should they be told that they mustn't have the tree of knowledge, of all things? Why was this? and so on. I had to wrestle with the problem as to what it was, and the nearest I could get to it was some idea of a kind of innocence when technically, in my metaphor, the transcendental and the human and the animal are in a certain order. I have dealt with all this before in the Third Symphony - what the angels are, what God is and what the animals are. And it seemed to me that the nature - in my sort of language for the moment - is this dream of some stabilization in which humans can still talk together. And then what happens when it breaks apart and you find yourself faced with the "cold indifference of the watching stars"? Musically I had to prepare it after the hell of a crash which ends the fourth scene, "The Ice-cap moves South-North' - I had to produce this image of the Garden there in the concert hall. And it seemed to me that the technique that was closest to me for producing that kind of paradise, and the simplest one, was madrigal technique, only it was much more elaborate than you'd get in an Elizabethan madrigal - nearer to Monteverdi. So already you find yourself saying that will be there, so many minutes of unaccompanied singing. And then you have to decide how many voices there will be singing in the Garden. So, gradually you get there if you are writing this kind of work.' 

The beginning of Part 2, the sixth scene, sets lines from Shelley's last, incomplete, poem The Triumph of Life together with an account of Shelley's own death by drowning – the theme of the fixed, the inexorable in nature developed in human terms. 'Well the Shelley suited me of course. The poet in the poem is Shelley himself and he describes himself as having been up all night on the mountain. He wakes in the morning and looks out to the West, to the Adriatic. Behind him, to the East, is the rising sun. He describes this chariot as coming, like the sun, across him: it 's the triumph of life you can't get off, but you're going to be thrown off, to die, there's no question about it. He asks the question, what is life? but there was no answer - it's all to do with Dante, Virgil and so on and things that go back I don't know how long. And then comes his own life, you see. He was going out of the harbour, going West to sea, going to catch the sun. And like the sun he goes down into the sea. The image is so strong, you see.'

The seventh scene of the work has to do with science and technological mastery and our capacity now to destroy life as we know it (Yeats: 'Measurement began our might'.) It ends with a terrifyingly graphic musical picture of Hiroshima ('Shiva dancing our destruction') and is followed directly by the eighth scene, a threnody for those who have lost their lives in a brutal world. 'It's interesting how an individual gets mixed up in these huge tragic things and, bit by bit, those who never get there at all, who never have a life. Herschel Grynspan [whose shooting of a German diplomat initiated the Nazi pogrom] is not named in A Child of Our Time - deliberately - so people accept that it's about the individual - Martin Luther King or whoever. It's so continuous: you may be a child in Ethiopia or somewhere and never have a life at all. It seemed that this element in me, that some song, some threnody for those who have never had a life, was needed here. You know, they've got a museum in Hiroshima itself, a rather lovely, simple building. There's one very strange thing there. A woman - it's thought to be a woman - who came out into the morning sun on the day it was dropped and sat on a concrete bench which was absolutely in the epicentre. When the thing happened above her she was incinerated almost immediately - nothing was there at all. But even then she left her shadow. So there in the museum is the actual concrete bench with her shadow. It's a fantastic image: she was a child of our time who apparently had nothing to do with it. 

'So what I call the threnody had to be there, but I had first of all to discover the right musical and other metaphors. I could have possibly written the verbal metaphor myself but in the end I chose Anna Akhmatova and her Requiem and Poem without a hero. Having found that, the musical metaphors had to find themselves. I had in mind a single human voice, a woman's voice. high up, but what was to go with it, you see? Well, by chance I'd seen a television programme called Off to Philadelphia in the morning about a Welsh miner who goes to Pittsburgh to work in the mines - Philadelphia was where you got off the boat. Of course he immediately started a male-voice choir. He married an American woman who was rather like Lady Elgar - very ambitious for him. In the end she brought him back to Wales where he became a choral conductor of some kind. But he wrote one famous piece for male-voice choir called Myfanwy - oh, it's marvellous! You can't forget it! This deep pianissimo sound, you see, is what I needed to go with the high soprano. It's a technique that is very difficult to do. So you see that remains there. That was a trigger for what I needed there. 

'The end of the work was a real problem because in a sense there wasn't an ending. Eventually it became clear that it was going to be driven into a corner. It ended with this strange quotation from Mary Renault 'O man, make peace with your mortality, for this too is God'. In The Mask of Time the position is that possibly genetic immortality is the only immortality, but I can't accept it like that. In the end it's got to be music, sound which is the metaphor, but then there was the question of what ending should be there; there are all sorts of possibilities - and you could of course have the non-ending.' But you chose to close the door, as it were. 'Yes, exactly. I do that a lot in a way. But this time when I got nearly there I realized that it was going to throw such a weight upon that Renault quotation that to make it mean anything at all after this huge piece had gone on, you would have to build it up. I had to come out from under, to finish with those words, yes, and then go on to end with an extension of the metaphor for the transcendent in the wordless chorus: "The singing will never be done".' 

Tippett has said before that certain music can sound as though it has always been there, an impression which perhaps ties in with the sort of thing Stravinsky had in mind when he said that he felt that he was 'the vessel through which The Rite of Spring passed'. Is this the kind of sensation Tippett was describing? 'Yes I would accept that, yes indeed. You see, in the operas there is the figure of the messenger - Sosostris, the god in Priam, or Mangus - and that is very close. Stravinsky I think felt that there was something that was trying to get made through him. I wouldn't possibly go as far as that, but certainly the moment I get into the world where we're dealing with this other element then I'm bound to go that way. I'm not the god, is the point, but I may have to put words there of the message or whatever. Taking it from Yeats, I'm no more than the divine go-between, that's who I am.' 

How does Tippett feel about the new EMI recording? 'Oh it's marvellous. What I think draws me to it especially is that it is from an actual live performance in a hall, with a live audience: something has happened. We wondered what it would be like in the Festival Hall but it was extremely good. This is the only recording there will be for quite a long time, I'm sure, but I don't think that matters at all if it's as brilliant as this. But, you know, I've never felt drawn to the idea of the "definitive" performance. Music is a performing art which keeps on changing.' 

One of the obvious benefits of a recording is that through repeated listening it enables people to come to terms with complex new scores. Until we have that, however, we have to make do with concert performances, and they are necessarily few and far between. 'Well yes, absolutely. But you know there are lovely stories about that. There's the famous one at a Friday afternoon performance of The Mask of Time in Boston. I was in the ring balcony and next to me was a woman whose friend was sat a few rows in front. After it had begun the lady at the front got up, came up, leaned over me and said to her friend "I can't stand this kind of music". And being the proper English gentleman I got up and opened the door for her!' 

This article originally appeared in the May 1987 issue of Gramophone

Explore Tippett's life and music...

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Alan Blyth talks to Sir Michael Tippett (Gramophone, April 1971)... Read more

Tippett's A Child of Our Time – which recording should you buy?

A Child of Our Time was Tippett’s reaction to tragic events that changed the course of world history. Geraint Lewis traces the genesis of this modern classic and follows its progress on disc...Read more

Reputations: Michael Tippett

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Obituary: Michael Tippett (Jan 2, 1905 - Jan 8, 1998)

Revisit the English composer's original Gramophone obituary from March 1998... Read more

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